Time for India to take a real look at Russia
It is possible to see that Russia under President Vladimir Putin actually desires to acquire a reputation of playing hardball where its interests are concerned. If Yeltsin-era Russia was somewhere between being dismissed and taken for granted, Putin’s Russia has come to distinguish itself as a determined, even aggressive geopolitical player. Indeed, acquiring this reputation could well be an important goal of Russian foreign policy. For that reputation helps in many situations. Like, for example, it helps make the threat to evict India from its first foreign military base at Ayni, near Dushanbe in Tajikistan, more credible.
That Russia should take such a position with its longstanding ‘ally’ and an important defence equipment customer should not come as a surprise. Russia has used the levers at its disposal to coerce a number of countries—ranging from its former Soviet-era vassals to the European Union. It’s India’s turn now. But why is Russia playing hardball?
The immediate answer is that Russia is compelling India to award the US$10 billion tender for the purchase of multi-role fighter aircraft to Russian manufacturers. India’s overall defence technology relationship with Russia is worth a lot more, but this angle cannot be ruled out. But it is unlikely that Russia would have considered issuing such a threat in isolation to the emerging geopolitics in Central Asia. For it would be reckless, even for a hardball player, to issue a threat without insuring against the consequences of it failing to have the desired effect. So what is Russia counting on? Well, China.
While they have their differences, the Russia-China relationship has strengthened over the last few years. China’s military modernisation project makes it an attractive market for Russian defence exporters, regardless of India’s opposition and even if such exports risk damaging Russia’s technological advantage in the medium-term. Further, the two countries anchor the Shanghai Co-operaton Organisation (SCO), which aims to impose its hegemony over the entire Central Asian region, and more importantly, keep the United States out. The situation is not unlike two bank robbers who know that not only do they need to co-operate to get the loot out, but also compete over how it is subsequently shared. The heist, as far as SCO is concerned, is not yet complete.
What does this indicate for Indian foreign policy? First, that the system of negotiating with Russia in the context of ‘traditionally close ties’ is approaching its end. Realpolitik, often in its offensive variant, guides Russian foreign policy, and India would do well to engage Russia accordingly. Second, that India must develop its own reputation for being able to stand up to such threats. ‘Independence of foreign policy’ has become political code for resisting American pressure. India has a much poorer record of resisting Russian and Chinese pressure—and this reputation must be set right. Defusing the Russian threat over Ayni offers an opportunity. And lastly, while it is desirable that the multi-role aircraft tender is evaluated on the merits of the proposals received, India would do well to consider the strategic costs of over-dependence on Russian military hardware.
Update: This post has been published on The National Interest online, a watering hole for America’s realists.